There is a storm building. Not of winds or waves, but of money and debt. The United States is the cumulonimbus of debt. Or maybe the stratocumulus. Debt clouds darken the horizon. Federal debt is nearly $20 trillion. If the sheer enormity does not alarm you, its projected surge should.
A lot of people are going to drown.
As to the storm’s size, the federal debt is now more than $61,000 per citizen. That is $61,000 for each mother, father, baby, grandmother, unemployed uncle, credit-card-happy Aunt Thelma and welfare cousin in America. When the storm’s swell washes in, that’s a lot of weight around the economy’s ankles. Most Americans simply cannot contribute much of anything to pay down this debt. Fifty-six percent of working-age Americans can’t even come up with a thousand dollars of cash in an emergency, according to Bankrate.com.
But don’t be worried about such things, you worrywart. America’s most powerful leaders assure us that debt isn’t something to fear. As Forbes explained: In today’s modern economy, debt is the same as cash. “The correct conclusion to draw is that these people are indeed middle class in a country with a well-functioning financial system. Because of this they don’t need savings because they have access to credit” (emphasis added throughout).
You can be part of the middle class without a thousand dollars to your name!
“[I]f we’re honest about it, credit and savings are economically the same thing,” wrote Forbes. “That most Americans don’t have $500 or so of ‘savings’ as conventionally defined simply doesn’t matter.”
Credit is really the same as savings, according to the experts. “[A]s ever in the study of things economic, it is consumption which is the important point of it all” (ibid).
There you have it! Why bother scrimping and sacrificing to build an emergency fund, or to buy that first car, or to pay for college when functionally speaking, the result is supposedly the same as using an American Express? It doesn’t really matter how you pay for it—all that really counts is the ability to consume.
Sounds a lot like Vice President Dick Cheney’s 2004 remark that budget “deficits don’t matter.” He said that just four years before the 2008 economic storm hit.
Back in the real world where credit is not the same as saving, and debts cannot be perpetually paid for by swapping credit cards, analyst Wolf Richter is very worried. “So now we’re burdened with such an enormous amount of debt that I think it is very hard to even breathe for the economy. A lot of people out there are worried about this,” he says (PeakProsperity, October 16).
According to Richter, America’s leaders are still trying to solve the too-much-debt-problem with more debt. “I mean, the Fed is still saying We will make money for free and you just need to borrow more money, and that’s its solution to having too much debt. It’s insane when you look at it.”
America’s federal debt works out to more than $166,000 per income-tax paying citizen.
There is another $3 trillion in state and local debt that must eventually be paid too. That’s an additional $25,000 owed per taxpayer. But Americans have no savings. They do however have a lot of something else—debt! Vortex in personal and corporate debt, and the U.S. debt rotation is $67 trillion in magnitude. And none of this includes the promised benefits to future generations of Medicare and Medicaid recipients.
Depending on how you calculate it, America has liabilities of greater than $100 trillion. Boston University’s Laurence Kotlikoff says it is closer to $200 trillion.
That’s a potential debt storm so big it is virtually impossible to fathom. Forget those promises made because they won’t be paid. Not in full. That in itself is going to hurt a lot of people who are relying on the government for shelter during retirement.
But even the part of the debt that analysts think the government could pay is quickly blowing out of proportion to America’s ability to sustain. The total size of the U.S. economy is under $18 trillion, which equates to a government debt-to-gdp ratio of over 110 percent. That is up from only 100 percent of gross domestic product in 2011.
Just eight years ago, the federal debt was only about $10 trillion. It has almost doubled during the tenure of America’s current president. And it doubled during the previous administration too. Is that rate of growth sustainable?
Does that mean politicians will come to their senses? That the debt storm will abate?
In fact, the debt storm will probably intensify before making landfall. Total U.S. household debt hit a whopping $12.25 trillion in March, but that is still 3.3 percent below the peak preceding the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. It has room to run. Student loan, auto and recently credit card debt are growing. Call them the three trillion-dollar-triple-threat.
America’s leaders think debt is good. Today, the Federal Reserve is considering raising interest rates a quarter of a point from 0.5 to 0.75 percent. The minuscule increase would be only the second one in 10 years. The Fed’s unstated purpose is to support consumer spending. Do you really think the Fed is serious about raising rates and reducing borrowing?
President-elect Donald Trump thinks you can’t lose with debt. He said on cnbc May 5:
Yeah, I think—look. I have borrowed, knowing that you can pay back with discounts. And I have done very well with debt. Now, of course, I was swashbuckling, and it did well for me and it was good for me and all that. And you know, debt was sort of always interesting to me. Now we’re in a different situation with the country. But I would borrow, knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal. And if the economy was good, it was good. So, therefore, you can’t lose. It’s like, you know, you make a deal before you go into a poker game, and your odds are so much better.
On August 11, he said on cnbc, “[T]his is a time to borrow, and to borrow long term, so that we can have money to rebuild our infrastructure.” According to Mr. Trump, nobody knows how to use debt like him. “I’m the king of debt. I love debt,” he said (cnn, May 4).
He told cbs This Morning in an interview on June 22:
I’m the king of debt. I’m great with debt; nobody knows debt better than me. I’ve made a fortune by using debt. … And if things don’t work out, I renegotiate the debt. I mean, that’s a smart thing, not a stupid thing.
And what if America borrows more than it can handle? The president-elect has that inevitability covered too (cbs, June 22):
You go back and you say, “Hey, guess what? The economy just crashed. I’m gonna give you back half.”
According to the Brookings Institution, the national debt may grow by almost as much under President Trump, as under President Obama. Brookings estimates $9.5 trillion in additional debt over the next 10 years.
Those estimates will rise. If there is one thing America has proven during recent history, it is that it knows how to underestimate spending.
And while America embarks on its greatest debt binge ever, a storm of epic proportions will be developing offshore. On land, all may appear sunny and tranquil. Debt will buoy the stock market; consumption will give the appearance of prosperity; temporary jobs will be created.
And then one day the storm will roll in. Suddenly the skies will darken. The wind will blow. The rain will fall. And a tidal surge of epic proportions will wipe America’s debt-based economic system right off the map.
Until then, you have a choice. Join the majority of Americans who build their financial houses on sand. Or build upon a sure Rock foundation. Begin by reading this. ▪